Texas arts website Glasstire reports that the Dallas County Fire Marshal shut down yet another Dallas art opening over the weekend. In case you haven’t been following the story over the past months, the marshal has been clamping down on numerous art events, shutting down openings, issuing citations for art spaces with wrong or no certificate of occupancies, and sparking a backlash that led to a formal sit-down between the city and arts community. The result of those conversations was supposed to be increased mutual understanding, as well as a new process for clarifying and streamlining the city’s often baroque permitting procedures. However, apparently the friction continues.
That’s what makes this past weekend’s crackdown so odd. According to the Glasstire report, the art space in question – called The Box Company – was told by city officials that fire marshals wouldn’t break up their opening if they just told the marshals that they were in the process of obtaining a CO. But that’s not what happened. Instead, marshals showed up en masse, and when the Box Company’s owners told them they almost had a CO, that it was all under way, the marshals said they didn’t care. They issued one citation for failing to show a CO and one for not vacating the facility quickly enough.
Adding insult to injury, the event was unpublicized — a private pre-opening with a tight invite list. Nonetheless, the apparently intrepid Dallas County Fire Marshal Department was on the case and sniffed it out. If only other branches of local government were so dogged.
The incident perpetuates growing frustration in the arts community over the Fire Marshal’s revived agency with regards to cracking down on arts events of all types. Over the past five years, Dallas’ cultural scene has experienced new vibrancy and notoriety, in part because of a new approach to exhibiting art: claiming old spaces, staging pop-up events, and fostering new private art spaces where the city’s patrons and cultural elite mingle with Dallas’ homegrown, grassroots arts scene. The Box Company is intended to be such a space, the brain child of Jason and Nancy Koen, another Dallas art-collecting couple who wanted to jump in the exhibition party game with their own private art space. But the shutdown — and the particularly aggressive nature of the shutdown — have now prompted rumors that the recent spate of enforcement is about more than simply a fire marshal department looking to dot and cross all of its regulatory i’s and t’s.
In the comments to the Glasstire story, Glasstire publisher Rainey Knudson relates a rumor I have heard circulating in a few corners of the local art world. Is the crackdown on art venues, the rumor speculates, a form of retaliation by the fire department against the arts community related to the backlash against the Museum Tower development? As you may remember, Museum Tower scored international headlines after it opened because it’s highly reflective glass façade shined light into the adjacent Nasher Sculpture Center, ruining, some arts aficionados argue, the intent and nature of the gallery space created by starchitect Renzo Piano. Museum Tower has since enjoyed sluggish sales, perhaps relating to the bad publicity (though opening during the Great Recession didn’t help), and is just one of the many beleaguered assets – though the most visible one locally — that are failing to hold up the crumbling Police and Fire Fighters Pension Fund.
It’s an intriguing conspiracy: fire officials angered at the swindling of the fire fighter pension by careless fund managers turn their ire against the arts community that they see as agitators who helped bring down the fund by spinning bad publicity around one of their investments. I’ve heard another form of this rumor that claims that hitting the arts puts pressure on Mayor Mike Rawlings, who has attempted to make culture one of his key priorities. Cue the House of Cards soundtrack.
But the rumor is also likely spurious – or at least one that would be nearly impossible to substantiate. In all the reporting done around the recent issues with the fire marshal crackdown, the fire marshal’s office (which is a county department and whose employees do not participate in the troubled Dallas Police and Fire Pension System) has simply repeated that they are merely enforcing proper city protocol. Over the past year, and particularly since a spate of New Year’s Eve party shutdowns, the fire marshal’s office has become savvy to the large quantity of arts events taking place in illegal spaces. The very medium that allowed for Dallas’ arts community to organize around a new paradigm of operation – Facebook, social media, and the like – now makes it all the easier for the fire marshal to shut down such activity when it occurs illegally.
And think about it from the fire marshal’s perspective. If, after all the recent publicity, they let this one event over the weekend slide, the department could come under fire for letting the rules slide for some and not others? In fact, because of the amped-up publicity around the crackdowns, it is reasonable to assume that the fire marshal now feels obligated to play each situation even closer to the book – any breach of the letter of the law could leave them open to more criticism or legal retaliation.
So is there a grand conspiracy against the local art scene? Or is the fire marshal just getting better at going after code violators? Perhaps we shall understand it all more as things continue to play out. In the meantime, the good news in all of this is that arts organizers are learning that they have to play by the rules, perhaps more ardently then they have in the past. The Box Company did go about obtaining its CO, and they will stage their opening again once that permit is issued. They may have been led into believing by city officials that they could open before they had the paper in hand, but, unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in now. The honeymoon is over. Arts organizers who want to operate art spaces in Dallas are going to have jump through all the hoops other businesses have to, and now with even more of a spotlight on them.
There is, of course, another option. We now live in a world in which if art events are going to happen, they either need to follow all the official procedures or get even more creative about working under the radar. Which shouldn’t be an issue, right? I mean, that’s what artists are supposed to be particularly good at: getting creative. Perhaps the silver lining in this whole fire marshal fiasco is that it may help to push our local artists even further. Because at this point, the landscape seems clear: Either you play by the rules or go completely rogue.